Holy Week: In a World Shaped by Violence, We Need Protest

“Did you hear about the riot this weekend?” Our friends Rachel and Matt were in town, visiting from Chicago where Matt works for a labor Union. He was talking about Hockey fans at the University of Minnesota who threw bottles and jumped on top of a moving car. As the police arrived, some of these students laid down in the streets, unmoving, as if they were involved in a political protest.
As we talked about the incident, a theme began to emerge. People need protest. Matt and I have both been involved in organizing demonstrations, actions against the powers that be. For Matt it has largely taken the form of picketing big businesses. I have protested with church-people around issues from homelessness to the war in Iraq. Matt and I agree, the act of protest enriches our spirits. We wondered if these students were rioting partly because they hadn’t been able to meet their need to act out in the street constructively.
We talked together about a scene from the life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician elected in California. Before he was elected, he was good at losing elections, but in all of the running he had become a public figure in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, the “gay-borhood.”  The year was 1977, and Anita Bryant had organized Florida’s Dade County voters to overturn a law protecting civil rights for lesbian and gay people.

Bishop James Mathes of San Diego kindles the Easter fire at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Bishop James Mathes of San Diego kindles the Easter fire at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
On June 7, the night the protections fell in Florida, the Castro filled with people streaming angrily through the streets.  Harvey Milk saw the rioters and told some of his fellow organizers to get them ready to march, to bring them down to City Hall. Milk ran ahead, leading the group. He then addressed them with a bullhorn. In the movie he says, “I know you’re angry.  I’m angry.” But Milk had taken the riotous energy and transformed it into meaningful public action. Chaos became protest.
These images were in the background as I heard the stories from the Gospel on Sunday, Palm Sunday. These last scenes from Jesus’ life are surrounded by crowds filling the streets. “Hosanna!” the crowd first shouts, before they are incited to riot and scream “Crucify him!”  As I listened to the lessons, I thought about the role religion plays in helping us to protest, how liturgy can move us from what the liturgical theologian Aidan Kavanagh called “the edge of chaos” to a place of constructive meaning and purpose. At its best, our worship helps us to move from the violence of the riot to intentionally and peacefully proposing an alternative world, a world shaped by the ethics of Jesus.
Holy Week is the summit of the Christian liturgical experience. As we enact the stories of the Passion, we remember where we have come from. The liturgy invites us to consider what is at stake. At its best, religion helps us move from destructive behavior into creatively remaking our lives and our world. We are invited into this world-building by a system of symbols:
  • washing one another’s feet,
  • sharing a meal that mystically ties us to one another and to God in Christ,
  • lamenting the violence of the world enacted upon our savior at his crucifixion,
  • witnessing as light bursts forth in the darkness, and
  • shouting “Alleluia!” and giving ourselves over to hope that life overcomes death.
Participating in the crowd gathered for the liturgy can take us from the chaotic riots of Palm Sunday into the hope that breaks forth from the tomb.
In a world shaped by the power of violence, we need to protest. Holy week invites us to stand up for a better world, a world re-created in the images of the stories of Jesus, a world that resembles the Reign of God.
Will you be a part of the action?

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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